July 13, 2015
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
“Be specific! Show, Don’t Tell!”
Those are fairly common pieces of advice from me when I grade student sermons. Generalities, undefined words like “this” or “that,” brief lists that quickly conclude with “and so on” or “et cetera” just don’t cut it. The concrete and the specific always trump the vague and the general.
I guess it’d be presumptuous of me to tell that to Mark.
Mark tells us in 6:34 that Jesus taught them much (in the Greek it’s just the word polla, “much”). He taught them a whole bunch of stuff, to be colloquial about it. But what kind of stuff? What did Jesus discern these “sheep without a shepherd” needed to learn and to hear most of all? Did he snow them with more parables that they had a tough time making sense of initially? (Mark did say earlier in this gospel that Jesus never taught anything without using parables.) Did he teach them more plainly about the Kingdom of God and about the grace of God that is the true center to the universe? Did he do a Sermon on the Mount-like listing of beatitudes, sketching out in that way the shape of the kingdom-filled life?
We could speculate endlessly on this, and we could make some pretty educated guesses, too, based on the rest of Mark’s gospel. But we’ll never know the precise content. So maybe we can better focus on something else that is rather remarkable here. Jesus saw these large crowds of people and he had compassion on them. They seemed lost. They were like sheep unable to find green pastures, moving through life without a goal, without the security a shepherd could provide. That, after all, is the implication of Mark’s pastoral image here: sheep without a shepherd were vulnerable, were unable to care for themselves, were liable to getting lost and/or injured.
That was how Jesus viewed them and so what does he do? He teaches them a lot of stuff. He teaches them. That’s not typically our response to such a thing in the modern world. We think that the solution to most any problem you could name would be to give people more stuff. What people need is a secure investment portfolio. They need purpose in their lives (and a good bit of that purpose will be to learn how to earn more money and provide material security to the family). We don’t need to teach people lots of stuff we just need to give them lots of stuff—or give them methods by which to get at that stuff—and they will be fine.
People themselves seem impatient with being reduced to students who have to learn. Ads for various technical institutes try to lure students to their hands-on computer repair training by reminding them that all that worthless stuff you learn at liberal arts colleges not only fails to make you any money one day, it just slows down your progress toward a lucrative career. This mentality seeps into the church, too, of course. Sermons need to either be very short or, if they are going to be longer sermons, they need to focus less on content and more on application, on how to get at a better life through tips on childrearing, business practices, marriage enhancement, and the like. Anything in an adult education forum that smacks of a content-heavy lecture is shunned by some.
Yet in Mark 6 when Jesus sees the crowds, he knows just what they need. Eventually they will need bread and fish, true enough, and he’ll provide that, too. But the compassionate vision of Jesus probed deeper and so he knew that the very first thing they would need was to learn a few things about God, creation, and their relation.
The crowds that day apparently lapped it up. But eventually in Mark when the content of the teaching got a little tougher to swallow—all that cross-bearing, death, and sacrifice stuff—they’d fall away. Only those who really understand Jesus’ teaching and learn it over the long haul see the sense of it all and find the joy and the new life of it all. That’s maybe a lesson the contemporary church still needs to hear and above all to learn as well.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
What is the Lectionary up to here? Why skip two impressive miracles (the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ calming of the winds on the lake after walking on the water to get to the disciples in the boat)? Why keep the focus instead on Jesus’ enormous popularity at this time and also on the twin themes of teaching and healing?
Perhaps this is the Lectionary’s mid-summer way to remind us of something that Tom Long thinks comes very close to the heart of Mark’s Gospel: viz., the idea that if you focused only on the miracles—and if those miracles caused you to move too quickly toward Jesus—you would miss the depths of what Jesus is really all about, seizing only the surface of Jesus but failing to get at what really matters down in the deep places of the Gospel. To get at that takes time, Long says. Maybe that’s why Jesus taught in parables—they slowed people down, puzzled them, made them think and ponder. And for some, maybe that was just long enough to understand, too.
Long is likely onto something. Already in the opening part of Mark Jesus both taught with authority and did eye-popping miracles, but in Mark 1:27 what the people initially raved about was Jesus’ new teaching even more than his miracles. Shortly thereafter when the four friends lower their paralyzed friend to Jesus through a hole they had dug in the roof, Jesus uses the occasion for a teaching on the nature of forgiveness, indicating that although he could (and did) heal the man’s crippled limbs, the real miracle that day was Jesus’ firm declaration that his sins had been forgiven, too.
Mark wants us to focus on the teachings of Jesus even as Jesus in Mark keeps his messianic identity a secret, hushing people up about it particularly after various miracles. In fact, in Mark it’s important to notice the trajectory of Jesus’ ministry. Here in Mark 6 Jesus is nearing the zenith of his popularity but soon enough—starting especially in Mark 8—Jesus will turn toward the cross and begin to talk more and more about sacrifice and taking up the cross and denying oneself and losing one’s life. No sooner does that happen and the very crowds who thronged around Jesus in Mark 6 get thinner and thinner and thinner until finally even the disciples fall away one by one to the point that in the end Jesus dies utterly alone (with only a Roman soldier left to witness to his identity as the Son of God).
The point of all this is that when preaching on these two snippets of Mark 6, we need to keep in mind Mark’s overall theme of suffering and sacrifice. We need to remember that Mark knows better than anyone that the truest identity of Jesus would be disclosed finally only on the cross. And so we need to remember that in our world also today, faithfulness demands that we stick with the true message of Jesus whether it proves to be a winning formula as the world knows such things or not. And if the gospel and the New Testament generally are any indication, that true message is going to meet resistance as often as not as it always carries with it the ring of counterculturalism.
In a time when the power of the mass media and the pervasiveness of popular culture seems able to swamp and swallow up most everything in its path, the call back to faithfulness to the gospel we cannot hear too often.
If you look at the Greek text of Mark 6:34 in an edition like Nestle-Aland, you’ll note that the phrase “sheep without a shepherd” (literally, “sheep that did not have a shepherd”) is italicized, indicating the editors’ hunch that this was meant to be a kind of quote or an allusion to something else. Commentator Robert Guelich points out that indeed, this phrase was one used often in the Old Testament to describe the people of Israel and, as such, is yet another Old Testament overlay on this event. The feeding miracle that follows is clearly meant to reveal Jesus as the Messianic Great Shepherd of the Sheep in fulfillment of prophecies from Isaiah and Ezekiel even as the later reference to how Jesus made the people to sit down on GREEN grass is evocative of Psalm 23.
Jesus wants to be our shepherd. What he perceived in the crowds in Mark 6 was first and foremost that they needed someone to shepherd them. And in John’s gospel we know that Jesus delighted in tagging himself as “the Good Shepherd.” That is, of course, a lyric image. Christians have long taken comfort in it, composing scores of hymns on this theme and creating so very many stained-glass window depictions of Jesus as shepherd. But how often do we realize that to some people, that may not seem like a comforting image at all? Because the way you get into that shepherd’s strong arms is precisely the path of self-denial Jesus will eventually talk about in Mark (and that won’t prove so popular to the people back then).
We need to be carried by Another precisely because we cannot make our own way, we cannot find our way. So we turn ourselves over to God in Christ and, in so doing, declare that we are not our own anymore. We do not belong to our own selves. Another has a prior (and a total) claim on us. Again, however, some people find that idea to be anything but comforting.
It is difficult for those of us who are so thoroughly familiar with the gospel to conceive of how this may sound in the ears of an outsider to the faith. In fact, it may even strike some of us as bizarre that anyone could look at the image of the Good Shepherd and see something offensive in it. But let’s give the world some credit: maybe those who are offended by that image are more in touch with its radical nature than those of us who look at it without batting an eye.
You see, what we too easily forget is the truth captured by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship. “When Christ calls a man to follow him,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “he bids that man to come and die.” We sacrifice our sense of self. We don’t stop using the personal pronouns “I” and “me”. But we place our sense of self in the context of who we are in relationship to Jesus.
Sometimes we forget how difficult that self-sacrifice is. But maybe part of the reason is because we fail to live this out in our day-to-day lives. We might do well to ask ourselves how often we reflect on our being owned by Christ, the shepherd of whom we are but the sheep of his pasture.
2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
In his commentary on I and II Samuel Walter Brueggemann makes the bold claim that this text from II Samuel 7 is the centerpiece to the whole of the Samuel corpus and is a crucial text for the church to pay attention to in this day and age as well. In the comments that follow in this set of sermon starters I’ll be indebted to Brueggemann but also to Eugene Peterson and his book Leap over a Wall, a book about the life of David that I highly recommend (even though if you read it, you won’t need my help in preaching on the life of David!).
As we come to this chapter, we know that David is riding the crest of the wave. He’s gotten rid of his enemies. Those who opposed David are dead or silent. His approval ratings are sky high from the Israelites, and it’s probably true that David could at this point do pretty much whatever he wanted and he’d get away with it. The people trust him enough that if he issued a decree, an edict, or declared some new set of laws, they would assume (initially at least if not over the long haul) that it was for their good and so they’d be only too happy to follow what the king said.
David has not yet discovered his own propensity to let all this go to his head. That will come soon enough in the upcoming incident with Bathsheba. For now, the world was David’s oyster and he was starting to think that he could do no wrong, not even in God’s sight. His pastor, Nathan, obviously believed that, too, and so when David proposed that he build God a house at least as grand as the cedar-paneled executive mansion he was occupying as Israel’s king, Nathan didn’t even have to pray about it before giving David the divine go-ahead. “Even God is your oyster, King David,” Nathan as much as said. “If you do it, God approves.”
Scarily enough, it reminds me of the outrageous line from Richard Nixon in the Frost interviews: “If the president does it, it is not illegal.” If David does it, it is the will of God. By definition.
As Peterson says, Nathan had probably spent his life the way most of us pastors spend our ministries; namely, he was forever being asked to pray to God FOR something that people needed. “Pray for my marriage, pastor . . . Pray for my wayward child, pastor . . . Pray that I can turn my business around, pastor . . . Pray with me for those lab results that are due back on Monday, pastor . . .”
Now, finally, Nathan encounters someone who wants to give back, who wants to do something for God. Wonderful! Finally a God-fearing believer who has turned the corner from neediness to generosity! What’s more, it’s David, the man after God’s own heart. This is a slam dunk. No need to pray. No need to mediate on this or sleep on it or check with God on it. “Go ahead, David. The Lord is with you.”
And the Lord was with David, and that is precisely why that same Lord had to put the brakes on here. David was about to trot down a path that may have looked as innocent as could be but that could well have led him to the kind of arrogant self-sufficiency that could be his undoing (and that very nearly would be his undoing as it was with Bathsheba and all the mayhem that led to). So God has to get into Nathan’s face with a long oracle.
As Peterson points out, there is no missing the message here: it’s not about David and what he can do for God. This is about God and what God alone can do for David. That’s why Yahweh is the subject of no less than 23 active verbs in verses 5-16—that averages nearly two per verse! What David is all about is not what he can do for God but what God has done and will do through David but for God’s glory, not David’s.
Of course, what God goes on to promise David is pretty spectacular. It humbles David to hear it. Although it goes just beyond the boundaries of this particular Old Testament lection (the Lectionary seems to shy away from the part about how God will punish David’s son if and when need be), we read in verse 18 that David’s response to Nathan’s message was to go and sit before the Lord. That passiveness of David’s posture is, as Peterson notes, wholly apropos. No more strutting around. No more standing up to tell God what was what and what he was going to do for God. It’s time to sit and be quiet and humbly receive what God alone can give.
David may be the man after God’s own heart but as it turns out, he most certainly cannot do whatever it is he wants. Even spiritually alive people, even those who not only claim to have a close relationship with God but who actually have that kind of a connection to God, even they now and then need to be reminded that God is in charge and that his ways are not necessarily our ways.
David was upset that God was still living in that sorry old tent same as had been the case during all those wilderness years of wandering when also the people of God were in tents. But now that David and the others in Jerusalem were doing better and had nice roofs over their heads, David assumed God would want and need the same thing. Divine dignity demanded it. A humble tent could never do for the great God of the universe!
But as it turned out, God was more interested in building David a house than having it be the other way around. And maybe the reason was because in the divine plan, it would be the house and line of David that would one day bring to this world the incarnate Son of God who was needed to bring salvation.
God didn’t mind living in a tent. As the Apostle John will one day reveal to the world, when the time had fully come, God would “tent” among his people yet again (John 1:14) and that it was precisely the humble nature of that abode of skin that would finally spell the salvation of all.
From Eugene Peterson, Leap over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians. San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1997, pp. 160-61.
“God’s word to David through Nathan was essentially this: “You want to build me a house? Forget it—I’m going to build you a house. The kingdom that I’m shaping here isn’t what you do for me but what I do through you. I’m doing the building here, not you. I’m not going to let you confuse things by launching a building operation of your own. If I let you fill Jerusalem with the sights and sounds of your building program—carpenters’ hammers, masons’ chisels, teamsters’ shouts—before long everyone will be caught up in what you are doing, and not be attentive to what I am doing. This is a kingdom that we’re dealing with, and I am the king. I’ve gotten along without a so-called house for a long time now. Where did you ever come up with the idea that I need or want a house? If there’s any building to be done, I’m doing it.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Most scholars suggest Psalm 89 is a psalm of lament. Yet the poet devotes most of it to praising God for God’s faithfulness and celebrating God’s covenant with David and his descendants. Even the segment toward which the lectionary directs our attention seems reluctant to highlight the lament aspect of the psalm, focusing, as it does, on God’s covenant with the Davidic line.
Psalm 89’s first verses praise God for God’s faithfulness. In fact they repeat references to God’s “love” and “faithfulness.” In them the poet notes that God demonstrated God’s faithfulness in part by making David king and then promising to always keep one of his descendants on Israel’s throne.
This gives those who preach and teach Psalm 89 an opportunity to reflect on the part recognition of God’s faithfulness plays in lament. Lament and celebration of God’s faithfulness may seem like nearly polar opposite actions. Yet isn’t it true that if worshipers don’t believe that God is faithful, they have no real reason to lament God’s apparent faithlessness? It’s the shock of God’s seeming display of unfaithfulness that fuels Psalm 89’s and other laments.
Verses 5-19 focus on God’s creative triumph over the primordial chaos that ancient near eastern religions assumed preceded creation. The poet celebrates how God in God’s faithfulness rules over the surging sea, crushed Rahab the chaos dragon and subdued God’s enemy that is chaos. God, in fact, adds the psalmist, “founded the world and everything it.” Not even chaos, in other words, could thwart God and God’s good purposes.
As has been noted in earlier postings, that’s a great comfort to those who must deal with various kinds of chaos today. Psalm 89 reminds worshipers that no chaos, whether personal or relational, creational or international, can defeat God and God’s good plans for God’s creation.
Verses 19-37, which include this week’s lectionary selection, focus on God’s covenant with David. They echo especially 2 Samuel 7’s account of God’s response to David’s offer to build a house for the Lord in which to dwell. Psalm 89 recounts God (and God alone’s) selection of David to serve as Israel’s second king. In it the poet remembers how God promised to support and strengthen Jesse’s son by destroying his enemies.
Yet the poet also goes on to remember God’s promise to establish David’s line “forever … his throne as long as the heavens endure” (29). This reflects God’s unconditional promise to keep one of David’s descendants always on Israel’s throne. The poet’s recollection of that promise even recognizes the moral weakness of David’s descendants. She remembers God promising that even when David’s descendants sin, God will punish but still keep one of them on Israel’s throne. So even in the face of royal faithlessness, God promised never to take God’s love away or be faithless. While David’s descendants might violate their covenant with God, God vowed never to break God’s covenant with David and his descendants. God’s covenantal promises are, in other words, as reliable as God’s control over the creation.
As James Mays notes, David’s kingship reflects Yahweh’s kingship. After all, God the divine Warrior, as verses 19-20 point out, chose a warrior-king. God’s right hand and arm, according to verses 13 and 21, equip King David’s hand and arm. As the poet notes in verses 10 and 22-23, as God defeated God’s enemy that is chaos, God promised to defeat David’s enemies. God, in other words, ruled over creation in part through King David’s faithful rule.
Psalm 89 also recalls the intimate relationship between David and the Lord, remembering its father-firstborn closeness. Perhaps that’s why verses 38-52’s lament is so deep and anguished. God has always shown himself to be passionately faithful to God’s own character, promises and children. So the poet expected God to keep God’s promise to always keep one of David’s descendants on Israel’s throne. Now, however, he feels that God has broken and abandoned God’s promise to David that was also God’s promise to Israel. The poet mourns that God has, in fact, gone beyond punishing David’s descendants to removing them from Israel’s throne. The very line of David seems to the psalmist to be in very great danger.
Yet the poet ends Psalm 89 with a stubborn assertion of praise. In the face of God’s apparent unfaithfulness, the poet insists “Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and Amen.” In other words, in the face of God’s apparent faithlessness, the psalmist vows to faithfully praise God as long as she lives.
So how might those who preach and teach Psalm 89 help hearers to think about this psalm? After all, Israel as the poet knew it no longer exists. The modern nation of Israel doesn’t even try to claim to have one of David’s descendants as its leader.
Beth LaNeel Tanner notes that Psalm 89 is both a cry to and against God. That makes its sentiment very rare in the modern church. After all, when’s the last time anyone in church accused God of letting God’s wrath “burn like fire”? Have you recently heard one of God’s children accuse God by asking, “Where is your former great love?” Few churches of which I know will find an easy place to liturgically employ the lament element of Psalm 89.
In Finally Comes the Poet, Walter Brueggemann claims the purpose of preaching is to preach poetry in a world that prefers prose. He challenges preachers and teachers to proclaim “shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, dangerous and imaginative possibilities.”
As Tanner points out, the words Israel and the psalmist throw at God near the end of Psalm 89 do precisely that. The word “Israel” means to “wrestle with God.” On behalf of Israel, the poet does precisely that in this psalm. She fights, kicks and screams at God when God lets the world she knows basically collapse. Yet Psalm 89 reflects a faith that’s robust enough to demand that God hear God’s sons and daughters’ pain and cries and accuse God of breaking God’s most basic promises. It shatters both the pleasant world of 2 Samuel and our own lives much the way the angel’s message shattered Jesus’ mother Mary’s. It also defies our own typical way of doing church that claims that expressions of pain and disappointment have no place either in the church or in the Christian life.
Psalm 89, writes Tanner, provides a vehicle for our relationship with God to move forward even when God disappoints us and we feel like God has left us with only God’s broken promises. It provides the good news that it’s not necessarily wrong to express anger with God and that God longs for an honest relationship with God’s children. The poet offers worshipers an opportunity to see God in a new light. Life doesn’t always turn out as we’d wished or planned. Fear sometimes does darken our lives. Yet even in the dark, God’s adopted sons and daughters can continue to have a praying relationship with our faithful God.
Of course, those who read Psalm 89 in the light of the New Testament know that God, in fact, didn’t actually break God’s promise to keep one of David’s descendants on Israel’s throne. After all, Jesus Christ was one of David’s descendants. Though parts of Israel violently rejected him as king, God raised him to the heavenly realm from which he now rules over not just Israel, but the whole world.
In the Psalter Hymnal used by the Christian Reformed Church – but in a few other hymnals as well – you can find the hymn, “A Congregational Lament,” that has a bold lament that echoes Psalm 89’s. Its third verse asks, “Why, Lord, must she be left to waste away? Do you not see how painfully she suffers? Could you not change the curse of this disaster?” Its fourth verse grieves, “Why, Lord, must broken vows cut like a knife? How can one wedded body break in pieces? We have all failed at being pure and faithful; only by grace we keep our solemn vows.”
Yet each of these and all of the verses of “A Congregational Lament” end with: “We plead: Repair the brokenness we share. Chastise no more lest it destroy your creatures. Hear this lament as intercessory prayer, and speak your powerful word to make us hopeful.”
Author: Stan Mast
Comments and Observations
If ever there were a text that resonates with life today, it is this ancient word. In this text Paul answers the burning question at the heart of the immigration debate in America. What is the right path to full citizenship? Of course, Paul is not talking about full citizenship in a country; he is focused on full citizenship in the church of Christ, that Body that spans all countries. This is Paul’s fully formed, most mature answer to the long raging debate about the place of Gentiles in the originally Jewish church. He answers the question, what must Gentiles do to be fully saved?
That issue had been settled long before by the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), which laid only the barest essentials of Jewish law upon Gentile converts to Christianity. But as evidenced by the letters to the Galatians and the Corinthians and the Romans, the issue remained a hot button topic nearly everywhere Jews and Gentiles belonged to the same church. This ancient text provides a desperately needed Gospel for a radically divided world. However, just because it resonates so strongly with our contemporary world, we’ll need to be very careful how we preach it. Though this text does have strong ramifications for the way Christians deal with the political issues that divide our world, it is not first of all about politics. It is first and foremost about how Christians relate to each other within the church.
This pericope is clearly divided into three parts. In verses 11-13 Paul reminds his Gentile Christian readers of their condition before Jesus changed everything. Paul’s description of their previous situation will not surprise us; indeed, it will sound like a depressingly familiar echo of our news broadcasts. Verses 14-18 announces the Good News of the surprising way Jesus changed everything, a way our secular peers and even some of our Christian friends will find shocking. Verses 19-22 focus on the results of what Jesus did. Paul describes a new world so counter-cultural that we will struggle to preach about it.
Never one to beat around the bush, Paul addresses his readers as “you who are Gentiles by birth.” And he quickly identifies the main issue between Jewish and Gentile Christians. It was circumcision, the visible rite that signified one’s full inclusion in Israel. Thus, these Gentiles were called “uncircumcision” by those who call themselves “the circumcision.” To many Jewish Christians it didn’t matter that these Gentiles had been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (as Paul has so eloquently said in 2:1-10). The only thing that mattered was that these Gentile believers in Christ had not been circumcised. The Gentiles had not kept the law that God had laid down for his covenant people. Therefore, in spite of their faith, they were regarded as outsiders. Although they had been individually saved by Christ, the body of Christ remained divided.
Paul uses a variety of powerful phrases to describe the outsider status of these Gentiles before they came to Christ. They had been “separate from Christ,” even though they had been elected in him before the foundation of the world (1:4). They had no living relationship with Christ, even though they had been predestined to become sons and daughters of God. As Gentiles, they had been “excluded from citizenship in Israel.” Whatever nation they belonged to, they were not citizens of the one nation that God had chosen. Being outside Israel, they were “foreigners to the covenants of promise.” And because they didn’t know or believe God’s promises, they were “without hope.” Even worse, they were “without God in the world.” Yes, God had set his eye and his heart upon them, but they didn’t know that. As a result, they lived without the knowledge of the true God, without peace with God, without the salvation of God. In a world filled with outsiders, these Gentiles were the ultimate outsiders—separate, excluded, foreigners, hopeless, Godless sinners.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” Here’s the sentence that summarizes the shocking thing God has done to utterly change the former condition of these Gentile Christians. There are three things here that will shock and/or thrill our divided world. First, Paul insists that it is only “in Christ Jesus” that divisions can be healed. As we proceed through the second section of this passage, we’ll see again that the only hope for peace in the church and in the world is Christ Jesus, who is “himself our peace.” Second, what does Paul mean by “brought near?” Does he mean “to God?” Well, yes, but that’s not his main message. And, third, note how we have been brought near. It was “through his blood.” It took violence to stop the war, bridge the gap between outsider and insider, and bring peace. This counter-intuitive message is the heart of the Gospel.
In an ultra-violent world, that’s not a message most sensitive peace-loving Christians want to hear. It only reinforces the stereotypical images non-believers have of believers. We’re a bunch of chest thumping, meat eating, warmongering right wingers who worship a fire-breathing genocidal God. Many contemporary Christians would prefer a Christ who was more like Martin Luther King, a preacher of non-violence who was himself a victim of violence. Paul does talk about Christ’s preaching. Indeed, that’s the conclusion of his description of the peacemaking work of Christ. “He came and preached peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were near.” (verse 17)
But it wasn’t Christ’s preaching that actually made peace between Gentile and Jew. It was not his words, but “he himself….” “He himself is our peace.” What does that mean? It has to do with “his blood.” Note the forceful language describing how Christ “made the two one.” He “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility….” How did he do that? He did it “by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.” In his flesh, in his body, Christ kept the whole law for us all and was punished as though he had broken it the same way we do. Thus, the law that divided us from each other has been abolished by Christ’s death. He took away the main thing that made these Gentiles such outsiders, and that made both Gentile and Jew enemies of God. It was Christ’s death on the cross that made the two one and gave us both “access to the Father by one Spirit.”
Paul surely cannot mean that the law of God is no longer in effect. Paul specifically says the very opposite in Romans 3:31. He was simply echoing Jesus who said in no uncertain terms. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” What does Paul mean then? He is referring to the law as represented by circumcision, the law as a requirement for membership in the church, the law as a condition of salvation. Though the moral law is still in force, it is not the thing that saves us. Only Jesus can do that. And only faith will join us to Jesus, and to each other.
That last phrase is Paul’s major point here. In verses 1-10 he talks about our salvation as individuals, though he uses the plural “you.” Now in verses 11-22 he turns to the corporate effect of that individual salvation. Jesus didn’t die only to save us individually from our sins and get us individually to heaven. He also died (can we say he died primarily?) to undo all the divisive effects of the Fall. “His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two,” that is, one new humanity out of the deeply divided human race. Christ’s death was not just about forgiveness; it was about the re-creation of the whole human race.
But Jesus wasn’t only interested in re-uniting a divided humanity. Often times today we talk as though the ministry of reconciliation is purely horizontal. But Christ’s ultimate goal was to reconcile the world to God; “and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death the hostility.” Paul concludes this part of his argument, “For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” No longer is access to God restricted by rules and regulations. We all have free access “through Christ… by one Spirit.” I love Calvin’s explanation of those prepositional phrases in verse 18. “Christ is the gate by whom we come to the Father, the Holy Spirit is our guide by whom we come to him.”
Lest we miss the fullness of salvation in Christ, Paul spells out the radical impact of Christ’s death. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people (the Jews) and members of God’s household….” This sentence would have been almost incomprehensible to the Jewish leaders of Paul’s day; it was hard enough for the Judaizers in the church to swallow. The situation that prevailed before Christ’s death has now been completely reversed. There are no outsiders in the church, no second class citizens, no tourists who just visit for a while but don’t really belong, no resident aliens. Everyone who believes in Jesus is not only a full citizen, but even a dearly beloved member of God’s family.
The only thing that counts is that we believe the teachings of the apostles/prophets, because that is the foundation of the church (cf. Matthew 16:18). What unites us is not race or ritual or observance of rules; it is Christ and Christ alone. He is the cornerstone. Some scholars express surprise that Jesus isn’t the foundation; after all, “the church is built on nothing than Jesus blood and righteousness,” as the old hymn put it. But Paul knew what he was saying. The cornerstone is the first stone laid in constructing a building. Thus, it is part of the foundation. But even more, it is the stone that joins the two walls and sets the direction for the rest of the building. It is in Christ that the two opposing parties become part of the one building.
Now it is the church’s task and privilege to grow until it stands in the world as the temple stood in ancient Jerusalem. It was the place where God dwelled in a special way, the place that witnessed to the nations that there is a God in Israel, the one true God who is the hope of the world. So today it is our calling as a multi-national, multi-racial, multi-cultural body to show the world that there can be peace among radically different kinds of people. Thus, the church shows the world where we can find God. Jesus died so that people could find God and hope and peace in a church that knows no outsiders. Outsiders are now the very temple of the living God.
If we preach this text faithfully, our people will be challenged mightily. Some will immediately see implications for the immigration debate in the United States or for the gay rights issue or for the sectarian wars in the Middle East. It is legitimate to consider those implications, but we must be very clear that Paul’s words here do not tell us how to solve the immigration debate or any of those other political issues. Paul is talking about the church, not the state. All we can say for sure about those political issues is that Paul reminds us of the priority of faith in Christ.
As we engage in political issues or the culture wars, we must remember that worldly distinctions, even distinctions created by God himself (circumcision, for example) are not as important as unity in Christ. The grace of God in Christ destroys and abolishes the divisions and hostilities of humanity in order to build a new humanity that becomes God’s house in the world. Don’t use these words of Paul to argue for one or another side in a political argument. Use them as Paul intended—to call God’s people to a unity that will show a warring world that Christ himself and Christ alone is the only hope for peace with each other and with God.
Many theologically conservative churches are filled with so many Republicans that Democrats feel like outsiders in their own churches. The opposite is true with many theologically liberal churches. Democrats are so dominant that Republicans feel like strangers in a foreign land. Both sides in this culture-wide divide must remember that our allegiance to Christ is much more important than all other allegiances, even if we’re convinced that our side is Christ’s side. There were no Republicans or Democrats when Christ died, just Gentiles and Jews. And Paul insists that Jesus died to make those two into one new human race for the sake of God’s world-wide plan to bring Shalom.
To stimulate our congregants’ thinking about God making peace through the blood of Christ, you could refer to the blockbuster movie, American Sniper, which is based on the book by sniper Chris Kyle. After his multiple tours of duty in Iraq, during which he killed over 160 enemy soldiers, he formed a security company with this slogan. “Despite what your mama told you, violence does solve problems.” This will be a big issue if you preach this text, so Kyle’s words may give you a way to confront the issue of violence and peace head on. Maybe too head on.